My 30-Day Writing Challenge Reading List

I’m 9 days into a 30-Day Writing Challenge on Medium, and I thought I would share my reading list with you.

I’ll be back on WordPress regularly at some point. The conversations I have had on Medium have been so compelling! Perhaps my journey on Medium will teach me a thing or two about engagement that I can replicate here.

We Survived Summer School

My students and I all suffered this school year, as did millions of others. Returning to the physical classroom bolstered our spirits. We are more optimistic about school year 2021–2022 now.

One of the students in the morning English class wrote, “I was mortified at the thought that I had to attend summer school. I always assumed that the kids who attended summer school were either not very bright or just lazy. Then, I arrived for the first day and saw some of the smartest kids I knew, and they were also taking summer classes.”

As her journey through summer school continued, she realized how much online learning and working in the evenings had dulled her enthusiasm about school. Additionally, she took responsibility for what happened and asked herself an important question: “How does someone fail a class that has always come easy to her?” That reflection ended up being the topic of the essay, which was part three of the final exam. In three weeks, she had her issues figured out and had a plan for the upcoming year.

This student was not alone. Several students showed personal growth during the short time we were together. I am so proud of them.

How We Began, and How We Ended

When they started the session, almost everyone wanted to point a finger at online learning as the reason they did not pass English. Granted, “learning through a screen,” as one student put it, was difficult. Each class was presented in a hybrid fashion, with students online for the experience and students in the classroom. Teaching and learning that way did not get any easier as time went by. After the first couple of weeks, the online students’ enthusiasm waned, and the ennui was palpable, even “through a screen.”

From Thanksgiving until February, we were all online, and that made things worse.

By the end of the session, students were more thoughtful about their performance. They acknowledged their motivation had disappeared during the school year. They had felt depressed and disconnected. Most of all: school did not matter to them. However, they were less inclined to point the finger at online learning and more inclined to thoughtfully process how they lost their sense of agency and self-advocacy.

How We Navigated the Middle

Teaching and Learning for Mastery

The students learned about agency and self-advocacy the first day of class. We read an article about teaching for mastery, instead of test scores. This article resonated strongly with the students. The article, sourced from a service called CommonLit, was a transcript of a TED talk by Sal Khan.

After reading the transcript, we talked about what teaching for mastery meant to us. For one thing, we all agreed it meant not leaving any student behind. Instead, all students should move onto the next, more complex topic with confidence. Most of us also had a story or two about being left behind, feeling abandoned and nervous, while our classmates plowed through the next concept. We all knew there were gaps in our knowledge in one subject or another, holding us back from being successful.

Yes, that includes me. I told my story about failing Geometry in ninth grade. I traced the gap in my knowledge back to fifth grade. Each year, something would fall through the cracks, so to speak, until finally I encountered a subject that mystified and terrified me. I gave up. The students told me their stories too, about feeling lost and confused.

“You have to be your biggest fan and your strongest advocate.”

That is when I drove home the point about being one’s strongest advocate for one’s education, and for building agency, that drive and will to be successful. To illustrate that point, I told another story about “conquering” College Algebra in my 30s. Although I dropped the course the first semester, I spent that semester studying on my own and returned to try again a few months later. There had been a breakthrough: I realized I was capable of doing well in the class with the right support. I was determined to do well. Because I had an excellent teacher and supportive software, I passed that class with an A.

Combining Inspirational Messages with Standards-Aligned Instruction

The articles we read served two purposes. First, the information in them helped the students to restore or build their confidence. As I planned the summer session, I knew students would struggle unless we faced learning issues and made connections to their experiences. Second, each of the articles addressed standards related to informational texts. They could practice finding the main idea and supporting evidence using texts relevant to them and their situation.

After reading the article about teaching for mastery, we read other articles about learning, including reading stamina and decision-making. The article about teaching for mastery stuck with them throughout the course, however. Many students wrote about learning for mastery, or finding the drive and determination to stick with something confusing until they figured it out.

I hope that determination drives them in the Fall to find their voice, ask for help, and stick with the challenging content and concepts.

Diagnostics and Data Drove Instruction

While the first couple of lessons were based on a hunch, the students demonstrated where they were academically with a diagnostic drawn from retired items on the state test called the Keystone Exam. We evaluated their performance by having each student complete a Google form by checking the item numbers from the diagnostic that they answered incorrectly. Then, I shared the class results with them.

It turned out that many students struggled with finding the main idea, citing evidence from the text, finding bias and propaganda, determining facts versus opinions, distinguishing essential from nonessential information, and determining how point of view functioned within an article. Some also struggled with text organization and components, like headings and graphics and their function.

Although I could not touch on all these issues during the three-week session, I did supplement the workbook I created with exercises for finding the main idea, citing evidence from the text, essential versus nonessential information, and fact versus opinion. My best guesses regarding their needs were correct, for the most part.

Other Concepts Every English Speaker Needs

We also worked on writing skills: sentence structure, commas, and semicolons and colons, among other things. At the end of each class, the students wrote an exit slip recapping what they learned that day. One student wrote, “Today we worked on stuff that we all should have nailed in eighth grade, but we didn’t. So it was good to work on it, and I learned a lot.” Two other students mentioned they were amazed by how much they had forgotten and enjoyed the refresher. One student wrote, “I have a lot to learn about semicolons.” Don’t we all?

We also completed two drafts of a final essay while reviewing the structure for essays, thesis statements/focus statements, paragraphs, and transitions. In my opinion, you cannot practice writing enough. Even as I wrote this post, I felt a bit rusty because I have not created a post in a while.

The Final

Each day was productive, in our opinion. I say “our” because I monitored the exit slips and assigned an essay for the final that addressed this topic:

What I knew about English before I came to summer school, what I learned while in summer school, and what I want to learn more about English in the future.

The exit slips showed me their progress. Their essays demonstrated reflection and growth. Again, I was proud of them.

The essay was part four of the final grade, which included a binder evaluation, two text sets, and the essay. I evaluated the student binder to ensure the student had participated in class by completing the assignments while the students worked on the first text set.

Each text set included two informational texts that prepared them for the fictional text they would read. Multiple choice questions followed each text. The students could make two attempts, and to encourage them to take the first attempt seriously, I averaged the grade. Normally, I would use the highest grade, but have found students will choose random answers during the first attempt to finish quickly.

The good news is everyone passed, and I could see improvement and growth in their essays. This school year, they should be more successful, especially since we are returning to in-person instruction.

We survived summer school. Now, we have a chance to thrive and grow.

Originally posted by Heather M Edick on  in Teachers on Fire Magazine.

My Declaration of Independence

Things I have learned by living on my own.

This year, I struck out on my own. I am now living in an apartment for the first time in my life. Having never rented an apartment, the experiences I have had this year have been terrifying and empowering simultaneously.

The photos to follow show an apartment that needs some loving. I hope to get permission to do some work on it, but for now, I have to live with what I have. I love this place.

I can put stuff together.

A friend gave me the dining set in the first picture. I summoned the courage to put it together. It took three hours or so, but it was finally built, and now it still sits in this spot in my kitchen. (My kitchen… that still sounds weird to me.)

Although you cannot see it, the bed frame that supports my bed is one I had to build. It took a while, but when it was done, I was very proud of myself.

When the TV stand came, courtesy of another friend, I was certain that when I put it together, the TV was a “goner.” However, it’s still standing, and I am grateful for that. I was quite nervous.

Next to the TV stand in the third picture is the DSL modem. When it arrived, I had to figure out how to install it. Finally, I had to call Verizon to help, and it turned out the issues I was having were not my fault. I celebrated! The technician came out, made a few changes at the network interface, and I was connected. (As an aside, I use Sling TV instead of cable, and I love it.)

When the lawn mower in the fourth picture arrived, I was dismayed to find I had to put it together. I envisioned cutting my hand off with the blade. However, it was assembled in half an hour, and off I went to cut the lawn.

Finally, just yesterday, I installed the apartment-dweller’s screen door in the last picture. Since I cannot install a proper screen door, I decided to put up this magnetic screen door. That took about 15 minutes, and now there is the potential for a cross breeze in this odd place I call home that will not allow buggies to enter. (Please ignore the towels hanging in the background. The door to the deck leads directly into my laundry area.)

I don’t have to live with torn screens… or much else.

When I first opened the windows in my apartment, I noticed the screens needed repair. Well, instead of waiting for someone to repair them, I purchased the replacement screens, as shown in this picture. They are working well.

The screens represent one of the first decisions I made to not simply live with something I found unpleasant because I thought I wasn’t worth the expense. Since then, I have made frugal yet practical decisions to improve my living conditions. I am worth it.

Putting an air conditioner in the window isn’t as scary as I thought.

Last week, there was a heat wave. I was forced to put the air conditioner in the window. I was afraid it was going to fall out of the window, onto the porch roof below, and do some serious damage, but it didn’t. So far, it’s still in place. Gorilla tape has become my best friend. Yes, it looks a little odd framed in black tape. I don’t care. I will have to paint the woodwork and use Goof Off to get the adhesive off, but I don’t care about that either. I will do that.

You may be wondering: “Are those clothespins holding up the curtains?” Yes, indeed they are. As part of my attempt to conquer the heat wave, I went to Walmart and purchased curtain rods that were the wrong size, along with other items. Well, I can use them in the loft, since the windows are smaller, but I did not want to spend more money on curtain rods. So I took the clothespins I use for laundry and hung the room darkening curtains I purchased.

Yesterday, the heat wave had passed, and I wanted to pull back the curtains. So, I took 3M hooks and shower curtain rings I had on hand to create makeshift “pullbacks” for the curtains. For right now, they will do.


Each time I figure something out, I send a photo to my family and caption it with “In today’s episode of #makedo…” I have been trying to use things I already have, or that are not that expensive. So, the picture of the curtains came with the following caption:

In today’s episode of #makedo, what do you do when you don’t want to spend more money on curtain rods, don’t want to climb on a chair again, and want light to come in on a nice day? You use shower curtain rings and 3M hooks you have on standby as makeshift pullbacks.

It’s been fun to figure things out and send photos with #makedo captions. I think the family likes them. My mother says I am channeling my grandmother. Grandmom, thank you.

Doing laundry is an act of affirmation and empowerment.

When I first moved into my little apartment, I went to the laundromat for the first time in my life. I liked it there, but realized I could spend my time wisely if I invested in a washer and dryer. The expense was (and still is) out of the question, so I purchased a portable washer instead.

My favorite appliance is my portable washer.

The washer arrived while I was visiting my mother, so we drove back from her house to get it from the neighbor’s front porch and into the apartment. Since then, I have done at least one load of laundry daily.

It’s an act of empowerment. It reaffirms my independence. I won’t go into why, so please just believe me.

Using the washer required a few adjustments. I purchased a short garden hose to hook up to the spigot in this room, and an attachment to keep that from leaking. That is because the hose that came with it does not fit the spigot, which is common. Additionally, I have to drain into a bucket, which then goes into the sink in the kitchen. That isn’t a big deal either. Each time I lift the bucket, I fill my vessel with positive, empowering energy. For an hour, I’m not thinking about much aside from doing the laundry. It’s like laundry yoga.

I also had to learn about using the right amount of detergent. This portable washer requires much less detergent than a regular washer. If I use too much, I have to clean out the suds, and that is not fun.

Oh, and if you have never tried cleaning vinegar, I highly recommend it. It softens the laundry, and no, your laundry does not smell like vinegar.

The spinner on this washer does a brilliant job. The laundry is practically dry when it comes out of the spinner. I hang items on the drying rack in the kitchen using the clothespins mentioned earlier. When I launder the sheets, I have taken to hanging them outside. I have never hung laundry outside before. It’s a pleasant experience.

As this home evolves, it reflects upon my emergence from a dark place.

The progression from a place to live, to a safe place in which I am happy, reflects on my development as a human being who wants to not only live, but thrive. When I moved into this apartment, I was in a self-imposed darkness, a cave I had found and crawled into. I wanted the world to leave me alone. I was afraid of everything, especially finding myself destitute and homeless.

A friend said to me that I should – and eventually would – realize that time in my life was not only an ending, but a beginning. Intellectually, I understood that. Emotionally and psychologically, it took time. As the seasons changed, I learned how to live in the moment; be good to those who want me around; be grateful for my family, friends, and guides; and to let the past guide me toward a better future, not to cling to it to further my self-imposed and well-cultivated misery.

What I have done to make this place a home is my declaration of independence.

Happy Independence Day to the United States of America.

How Will You Change the World?

The name of the final unit in my classroom this year is “How Will You Change the World?” I approached this with my students by saying how much I wish someone had asked me that when I was considering college and career options. I also said we needed to end this dreadful year with an uplifting and confidence-building activity.

In my Junior and Senior sections, this unit combines college and career exploration with an exploration of how individuals can make a difference using their talents, skills, and education. The culminating activity is an essay entitled, “How I Will Save the World.” Students could use this essay in future college or scholarship applications, if given an open-ended option.

In my Sophomore and Creative Writing classes, this unit combines an interest inventory and career exploration with writing a superhero story or poem as the culminating activity. Each story should be entitled, “[Character Name] Changes the World!”

What’s the POINT?

In a previous post from what seems years ago, I talked about an acronym, the POINT, and how it was helping me to structure units and lessons. I am revisiting that now for this unit and post.

  • Purpose (Goals)
    • We all need to regain a sense of agency. So many students are struggling right now, often believing they have no control over what happens to them. Many adults believe they have lost control over their lives too, after being under tight restrictions for over a year. We did just turn a corner on a pandemic in this country, after all. Therefore, we all need a reminder that we, as a collective, need each of us to bring our gifts with us as we work together to create positive change.
  • Objectives (SWBAT/Standards)
    • Students Will Be Able To
      • Describe their current interests and abilities, and how they will use them in their future educational or career opportunities.
      • Report on their current concerns about society.
      • Connect their interests and abilities to their concerns to describe how their education or work experience will help them do more in their communities.
      • (11th and 12th Grade English): Create an essay of 500 – 650 words on the topic, “How I Will Change the World.”
      • (10th Grade English and Creative Writing): Create a superhero short story or poem with the title, “[Character Name] Changes the World!”
    • Students Will Also Be Able To
      • Use the writing skills practiced this year to create a well-organized and well-written essay, short story, or poem (depending on the class).
      • Integrate new vocabulary as assigned into their writing.
      • Analyze and appreciate poetry shared
  • Indicators of Learning (Diagnostic, Formative, Summative)
    • Diagnostic assessments include grammar and vocabulary assessments to determine readiness for writing on the topic.
    • Formative assessment includes free-write responses to mini-lectures and completion of profile documents after interest surveys.
    • Summative assessments include an essay or short story/poem, as described above.
  • Negotiables for Differentiation
    • Some students will need graphic organizers and templates to help them craft their text.
  • Tasks/Steps
    • Rather than provide a step by step description, I will include here the resources consulted by the class to develop our thoughts on this topic. Please see the next section.

Resources and Materials

Inspirational Poetry

  • “Thinking” by Walter D. Wintle
  • “Opportunity” by Berton Braley
  • “The Builders” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman
  • “On the Pulse of Morning” by Maya Angelou
  • “The Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • “It Couldn’t Be Done” by Edgar Albert Guest

Websites for College and Career

  • O*NET
  • My Next Move
  • Career Finder from the College Board
  • Big Future from the College Board
  • CommonApp
  • FSA (Federal Student Aid)
  • Writing a Personal Statement (Purdue OWL)

Technical Resources

  • Schoology
  • Google Docs
  • Quizlet
  • CommonLit
  • YouTube
  • Poetry Foundation

Sample Assignments

Free Write

Now that we have explored careers and majors in AP Lit and Applied English 11, and the notion of the superhero in English 10, Creative Writing I, and Creative Writing II, contemplate this statement, which I concocted on my own.

Many poets have discovered their role in the world.  Not only do they entertain, but they use their gifts to speak out about current and past events, to comment on what is admirable and what needs to change.  This role is not limited to poets, of course.

Those in other professions can do something similar.  Either by setting a positive example, having the courage to work for change, or speaking out directly about change, every person can join the effort to effect positive change.  

Think about those professions you are interested in and how you think you can make a difference.  Write for 10 minutes and submit your thoughts to this assignment.  You can submit a Word document, a PDF, or submit using the submission text box.  Please do not submit Pages documents.  Thank you.   

Quizlet Creation Using Vocabulary Words (Discussion)

Create a Quizlet to help students study the vocabulary words we have chosen for this unit.  The word should actually be a sentence with the vocabulary word missing.  Below is a link to an example Quizlet you can use to model your own.  

AP Lit and Applied English 11

Create a Quizlet using the words for College and Career Exploration, and any words not on the list that you have chosen for your essay.  Your sentences should reflect the major you have chosen.

English 10, Creative Writing I, and Creative Writing II

Create a Quizlet using the words for Superheroes and Villains.  Your sentences should reflect the short story you are going to create.


To Fulfill the Requirements of this Assignment

1. Share the link to your Quizlet in this discussion and answer this question: How difficult or easy was it to create sentences using these words? 

2. Examine two of your classmates’ Quizlets.  Test yourself.  Comment constructively (kindly) on their Quizlets.

Once you have completed this exercise, you may have several sentences you can use in your essay or short story, depending on which class you are in. 

Final Essay

Your final essay will be due June 1, 2021.  Please do your best to turn in this assignment by the deadline, as Senior grades are due June 7, 2021.  Thank you.

Please review the rubric attached to this assignment.  You can evaluate your essay against the rubric.  

Requirements (Please read and ask for clarification, if necessary.)

  • An essay of 500 – 650 words (it would be helpful to include your word count at the top or bottom of the document) that responds to the topic, “How I Will Change the World.” 
  • Demonstrate how you evaluated the career and/or major you are going to pursue, and how you will use the skills and your interests to make a difference.
  • Use at least 5 of the vocabulary words from our Quizlet list.  Ensure you are using the words properly.  Highlight the words you have used. 
  • Do your best to check the grammar, spelling, and punctuation used in the essay.  Use the grammar and spelling features available in word processing software to check your document.
  • Upload a document produced in word processing software, please.  Do not upload Pages documents; instead, convert these to PDFs and upload.  Do not add links to Google Docs; instead, download the document as a PDF and upload that.  Word documents can be uploaded.

If You Would Like to Know More about This Unit

Please leave me a comment if you are interested in learning more about this unit. Thank you!

Let Them Write!

It occurs to me that one way for students to better understand poetry is to write it. I had this epiphany this morning as I scribbled “Irrelevant.” As I was scribbling, I noticed a rhyme scheme and a pattern emerging, and they changed my thought process.

Yes, I know; it shocked me too.

I wondered to myself, post-scribbling, if what I experienced was like what “real poets” experience as they are writing a poem. What did I learn about the writing process by writing? What can my students learn about literature by writing?

In AP Literature and Composition, we spend so much time reading and analyzing literature in search of nuggets of wisdom regarding the human condition. I’ve been missing an important piece of that exploration, however: Creation. Therefore, next year, we will spend more time exploring the creation of literature and creating some ourselves. Perhaps creating texts will help the students (and me) better analyze and tease from the texts those important messages that can help us live our best lives.

How Might This Be Implemented?

Good question! These are my nascent thoughts.

Take a Basic Project Management Approach

In my previous life, I was a team lead for an internal training team. I tried a basic project management approach to initiatives, following an acronym I came up with after taking a college class in project management.

  • Plan
  • Execute
  • Analyze
  • React

The Project

For literature study, we could implement the project with these steps (I think).

  • Prepare: Read several texts and about their historical context, their authors, and their authors’ writing process; students choose an author to focus on, one who speaks most to them.
    • Review key questions after each text, and write paragraphs to answer those questions.
    • Create one-pagers about the historical context.
    • Create charts about the author and author’s writing process for each text.
    • Choose an author to focus on.
  • Evaluate the author’s process: subject choice; themes; drafting, revision, and editing; response to the world.
    • Create a one-pager about the author’s process.
  • Author: Students create a text after choosing a subject and theme; students draft, revise, and edit their text; students respond to constructive feedback from peers.
  • React: Students evaluate their writing process and whether knowing something about the writing process for literary writers helped them as they created their text; students re-evaluate the texts we read during the “Prepare” phase for greater understanding.
    • Sentence stems for the first part could include:
      • As I was writing, I noticed I stopped when…, and this is like / different from what I read of _____’s experience.
      • As I was creating ____, I noticed…, and this is like / different from…
      • My [setting/character/language/structure/theme] reminds me of…
      • I read about ____’s writing process. While I was writing, I noticed [similarity/difference] in my writing process.
      • ______ used [his/her] experiences with ______ to create _____. Similarly, I used my experience with ______ to create _____.
    • Return to the texts and write about how the interpretation or understanding has changed in light of the personal writing process.

This project is best served by reading texts like short stories and poetry. It would be difficult, for example, to consume several novels and then dive in. Additionally, texts from authors who have either written or spoken about their writing process are better choices. Writers from The Lost Generation and Harlem Renaissance immediately come to mind.

In AP Lit, standards and key questions exist for short stories, poetry, and longer fiction; these standards and key questions should be aligned to a creation project like this. The twist occurs when the students synthesize their experience with what they know of the author they studied. Did they notice anything while they were creating that was similar to the author or diverged from the author’s experience?

Culminating Activity

I think the most important piece of this is to write about whether creation helped interpret other texts, if the act of entering a writing community provided a key to unlocking the mysteries of great literature.

Another question, one that is central to the course: “How did this exercise help you better determine how a text speaks about the human condition?”

Reimagining the Study of Literature

I am sure that there are literature teachers out there who already do this type of project. In other words, this idea is probably not new. However, I like to share instances in which I stumble upon ideas because it is important to be part of the conversation. In this post, I am starting to reimagine the study of literature for myself. My goal: to make learning as meaningful and useful as possible.

In a previous post, I wrote about “Writing to Learn.” My goal then was the same as it is now. If you look back at posts I’ve written over the years, you will notice that I strive to answer the question, “Why do I have to learn this?” The best way, I think, to answer that question is to bring the students closer to the concept, skill, text, or whatever it is. Bring them into the community. Welcome them. Assure them. Let them write.

Thank you for reading this post.


If you are interested in learning more about a poet’s writing process, this interview with Billy Collins is helpful.


It needs to become irrelevant that "I'm Still Standing," Elton John.
Perhaps it is true that I've been put upon
this Earth for more than that,
that I'm destined for more than that.

Irrelevant.  It.  Perhaps.  I'm still standing.
I'm not an It.  I'm not irrelevant.  I'm landing
on a different runway this time.
No more deja vu for me this time.

This time.  Why so many years spent!
Why let them live rent-
free inside my head?
Why live filled with dread?

Break free!  Be me! Stop being
who you think they want you to be.  How freeing
to think it can be different.
It will be so very different...

I'm not there...yet.

With apologies to Sir Elton John

Writing to Learn

In my research on writing-to-learn, I found the following explanation from Colorado State University. 

Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu, or otherwise informal, and low-stakes writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Instead, consider writing-to-learn, for the purposes of this article, as a longer, sustained process by which a writer probes the mind in the dark and musty places to gain insight about the human condition and the self.

Philosophical Ramblings

Elsewhere, I have written, “Writers are drawn to writing to explore their lives and their world view, but accessing the part of the mind that makes it possible to explore to the depths of one’s soul is often just too much.” That is true, and that is why so much writing falls flat.

Writing is hard. Writing-to-learn is harder. It requires the writer to acknowledge something: cognitive dissonance, conflict, mistakes made, pain – and committed writers are often depressed as a result. From those acknowledgements, themes emerge, as does greater understanding, but sometimes at a considerable cost. Going deep to discover what you believe and think can be brutal.

Look, we are not born with a tabula rasa – a mind that is a clean slate. That’s my opinion. Instead, the generations of evolution that have taken place are present within us. We cannot articulate them at first, but it’s my opinion that we are born with understanding. Then nurture takes over and tramples certain aspects of understanding, while leaving others intact. Nurture – tradition, culture, history – teaches us to view the world in ways that might be counterintuitive to nature.

There comes a point in one’s life during which we question how we were raised, and our nature begs us to reconsider certain truths. That’s when we experience depression or angst.

So, if we are all born with this understanding, probably more evolved than what nurture offers us, why aren’t the nurturers of the same mind as us? I figure it’s because traditions are long-standing and humans are loath to change.

Think about “movements” in our collective history. They are called movements because they are instigating change, overcoming cultural inertia. They get push-back because humans hate change. Meanwhile, evolution – by definition change – marches on.

It is within that space between stasis and definitive change that we as individuals often find ourselves as we confront nurture with nature for the first time. It’s exhausting, especially after years of conditioning, to assert thoughts and opinions that diverge from common knowledge.

And yet, this is what we must do. We must confront common knowledge and either accept it or reject it. Sometimes, rejection is received by the community without question, and the community marches on, declaring the individual different, but not a “problem.” Sometimes, the individual is declared unworthy of inclusion. Sometimes, the individual is declared outright dangerous.

In all cases, people need to question the status quo. It’s in our biology, even if society wants to maintain stasis. I question why that is.

  • Why can’t we question without push-back?
  • Why can’t we be Socratic? Why did Socrates have to drink the hemlock?
  • Why don’t we learn from history?
  • Why are philosophers and writers considered dangerous, and teachers not treated professionally?
  • Why do some submit to the collective will, even when they know the collective is wrong?
  • Why do some persist, even when it endangers them?
  • Why does it take so long to bring about change?

Writing-to-Learn Activity: Exploring Banned Books

Through writing-to-learn activities, we can address these questions. While these activities are important for any subject, I’m an English teacher, so my ideas are informed by my experiences in the ELA classroom. I welcome you to contribute your ideas for other content areas.

WtL: Literary Analysis and Response

Great literature beckons us to question everything about it: characters, setting, language, style, theme… We explore our prior knowledge within its context. We find evidence in the text to help us interpret what the author is expressing about its themes. We build knowledge in this process and bounce it off what we knew before. We then either know something new or reject the author’s premise; this decision-making process is a sign of maturity.

Although younger readers might need time with the canon of “accepted” literature, more mature readers should learn about books that make society uneasy. Just as they are starting to question their nurturing, they should be allowed to read texts that help them question. As a teacher, I think it’s my job to curate those texts and present them to my students. My gift to them is an opportunity to experience the discomfort that comes with exposure to inconvenient truth.

Why Discuss Banned Books?

Books are banned because their authors dared to raise certain questions in “unacceptable” ways. Themes emerge from those texts that are anathema to society. Those books, however, hold the keys to human evolution. Where is society hiding the keys? Some may be in a dusty library closet, probably, or a corner of a professor’s office.

As humans develop cognitively, they may find the keys; it’s a “Where’s Waldo?” game with themes. There are clues left by those who disagree with banning books, for example. They are there, and we need to identify them to find them.

At the very least, there should be a discussion about banned books. The American Library Association helps us with “Banned Books Week” each year. The association is promoting the freedom to read. Indeed, reading and freedom do go hand in hand. Consider the audacity of Martin Luther to suggest that ordinary people could – and should – read the Bible! My word! What was he thinking? (That was meant to be sarcastic.)

On this page, you will find the Top 10 Most Challeged Books each year from 2001 – 2020. It is truly amazing to me that last year Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas made the list. In other years, I noticed titles that shocked me as well.

The reasons for banning books also saddened me, especially those LGBTQ-themed books. At a time in which society needs to understand LGBTQ perspectives, to ban the books that express them indicates that society considers the community dangerous.

“Anti-police” books are banned because society doesn’t want to have the conversation we so desperately need to have about police reform. One book that falls into that category, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, allegedly addressed topics that were too “sensitive” to consider “right now.”

Not now, honey, we’ll discuss it later.

Unfortunately, tomorrow never comes.

This year, Banned Books Week is September 26 – October 2. I plan to address this issue with all my classes that week, and to ask them to write-to-learn about their reaction to banning books. We will also read and react to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, because that book addresses the notion of banned and destroyed books as the destruction of knowledge itself. We will write-to-learn about our reaction to this theme, whether we agree with it or not.

The New York Times’ article, “The Banned Books Your Child Should Read,” by Perri Klaus, M.D., ends with a perfect reasoning for allowing your child to read banned books.

As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s high school summer reading assignment was to choose a book ‘out of your comfort zone,’ however the student chose to define it. Because that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom (and human right) of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.

Yes, indeed.

Thank you for reading this post.

Why Do We Accept the Negative Aspects of Education?

As we round the bend toward the end of a challenging school year, we educators hear so much about the negative effects of remote and hybrid learning on students and families this year. Is there anything positive that has come from it? Yes.

At the very least, we have qualitative and quantitative data available to help us address the issues inherent in our education system. With such data, we can change priorities and eliminate policies that do not work.

After this year and the final quarter of last year, it is not enough to say, “This is the way it has always been done.” We need to add to that statement, “This is the way we are going to do it from now on.”

Follow the Data

In previous posts about the hidden curriculum and questioning everything, I emphasized the opportunity to reimagine educating our youth. We can learn much from our recent history. What worked? What didn’t?

What Can We Learn from Project Management Practices?

In project management, reviewing what worked and what didn’t is called a postmortem. The team reviews the project’s progression, changes process and procedure to support continuous improvement, and builds new processes and procedures to function more effectively next time. Although schools are not businesses, project management principles are so logical and methodical that I highly encourage adopting those that would work for education.

Teachers are born project managers, in my opinion. We adjust each lesson and unit to “meet the students where they are,” within the guidelines set forth by administration, the district, and departments of education – for example, state standards and Common Core considerations. We know that each new group of students will require accommodations and modifications to what we have planned. What worked in the past might not in the present. As we approach a new unit, we ask ourselves, “How will this group of students manage this unit? What can I add or take away to ensure success? What type of instruction will work best?” Let’s extend that process to the entire education community.

Since teachers do strive to “meet the students where they are,” I argue teachers have adjusted their instruction for pandemic teaching, whether it be hybrid, fully-remote, or another method. What was “tried-and-true” in the past (with adjustments, of course) was put aside for methods we thought might work. This school year was one long, complicated, and exhausting experiment for all concerned. Next year should not be. What did we learn?

Teachers Need More Support. How Can We Get the Support We Need?

Teachers need more time for effective and timely professional development, and more just-in-time support. If there is anything we can learn from corporate personnel development, the delivery of PD and JIT support should be among those lessons.

How can we support that? We need to hire more teachers and instructional coaches. We need more co-teacher arrangements and more constructive feedback from observers. Our PD, which sucks up precious time, needs to be worth it and needs to address our current predicament. We also need more time, a commodity that always seems to run out just when we need it most.

How Can We Finally Address Inequity?

Teachers have not only struggled with new and complicated technology to benefit their students, many had to struggle to help students who were unfamiliar with the technology too or could not access that technology.

Many districts implemented several solutions for students who do not have tech at home with help from corporations, but it wasn’t enough. For example, Internet providers made Wi-Fi free for those who needed it, and students in need were provided personal hotspot devices. Devices that did not normally leave school made their way home, too.

Still, many, many students were technology deprived. The problems exacerbated what was already a significant disparity in education. What did we learn?

School Districts Need Equal Funding. How Can We Achieve That Goal?

School districts need equal funding. Period, full stop. Every student in this country should be funded at the same rate, no matter where they reside. Every student should have the same technology, resources, etc. The minimum threshold for funding should be equal to the richest district in the country, not the poorest. We need to redefine what FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) means to specify that each student is equally funded.

How Can We Regain Students’ Interest?

Each year, some seniors in high school suffer from senioritis. They want out. They’re done with school. They need to move on with their lives. They’re planning to decorate their dorm rooms in October, as soon as they have asked for the recommendation letter. Some already have jobs to go to once they have that diploma in hand.

This year, senioritis has infected some students at every grade level. The symptoms are recognizable: disinterest in content; a belief that nothing they are doing in school matters; disengagement; and even rudeness. The students stop saying good morning, or decline to acknowledge teachers and staff in the hallway. They go into their shells and their friend pods. “Just get through the year,” they seem to say.

The hardest part of teaching those with senioritis must be facing the hostility from some students. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

This is boring. What’s the point? How is this going to help me with the job waiting for me, because I’m not going to college and I don’t need to know about theme, characterization, setting, etc.? How is this going to help me, because I’m going to major in business and no one in business cares about literature? (That’s not even close to true, but they don’t believe me.) This is supposed to be an easy year.

You’re “harshing my mellow.” Kids probably don’t use that phrase, but it was the first to come to mind.

Despite my valiant efforts to answer the question, “Why do we have to learn this?” some students have not responded the way I hoped they would. I’ll keep trying.

On a yearly basis, I wonder why some students are so anxious to get out of school. My senior year was full of so many challenging and intellectual experiences that I did not want it to end. I felt like I was finally hitting my stride that year, so I can’t relate to the anxiety and, yes, the anger I sense coming from them.

This year, I’m still perplexed, but also more understanding. The fact is that some students cannot imagine having an experience like mine, and this year of pandemic teaching has only heightened their dislike of, and disdain for, schooling.

What can we learn from what is happening this year? These questions might help us ground our investigation.

  1. Why do some students dislike school? Specifically, what happens to students along the way that leads to them disliking it?
  2. How curious and risk-taking are children when they start school, and how does the curiosity and likelihood to take risks diminish for some as the years go by?
  3. What messages are we sending year-on-year, by way of standardized tests, grades, and competition? How do those messages reflect our values related to learning? How do these messages affect the students?
  4. Why are so many kids afraid to be wrong? What messages are we sending to students about being wrong? What messages should we send to students about being wrong? How do we change evaluation systems to reflect the value of learning from mistakes and taking risks?
  5. What aspects of the curriculum should change to reignite curiosity and the need to know something in some students?
  6. Does personalizing learning, as it has been implemented, actually work?
  7. Are we listening to students? Are we really trying to meet them where they are?
  8. How large should classes be? Are we doing our students a disservice with large class sizes? (Y’all know the answer to that one.)
  9. How many classes should students take in a given semester/marking period/trimester? Are there too many classes on a student’s schedule? Have students run out of bandwidth because their schedule is so heavy?

It is my contention that students are telling us what they need, even when they seem to have “checked out.” That act alone speaks volumes. This year, some students are telling us not to accept the negative aspects of education anymore. They are telling us to re-imagine education.

How Can We Change the Way Society Treats Teachers?

To be fully effective, we need to be taken seriously. Teachers are dedicated professionals. Many do not consider this just a job, but a vocation.

Unfortunately, some of these dedicated teachers now find themselves at the end of their teaching journey and are moving onto other fields because the state of our educational system is in dire need of repair. They are exhausted, emotionally and physically.

This year has been brutal for teachers in so many ways. I shake my head daily as I read about how teachers are being treated. It needs to stop. It is not enough to preface the criticism with, “We all know teachers want to be back in the classroom.” People don’t hear that part; they hear everything that comes after it.

I have been fortunate thus far, supported by an administration that accentuates the positive and works tirelessly to get resources to its students and staff as its default position. Many teachers, however, have not had the same experience. Many of them are saying, “This is not what I signed up for.”

When I signed up for this position, I knew I might have to take a bullet or sustain other life-threatening wounds to save my students. I signed up willingly, and without hesitation. I have had desks tossed in my direction, watched students punch holes into my classroom walls, broken up fights, been cursed and laughed at. I’m still teaching.

What I did not anticipate was being fearful that I would bring a virus home to my family that could kill them. That responsibility is way above my pay grade. So, if folks want to be upset with me or any of my colleagues for not wanting to risk their loved ones’ lives, so be it. It’s terrible, however, that society is demonizing teachers for loving their families and wanting to protect them.

How Can We Finally Feel Safe?

Follow the data, if you would like to understand why teachers are still concerned about going back to full classrooms. You will notice that surges happen just when everyone thought it was safe. It’s the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, in which the character opens the door while a chorus of other characters cries to keep it closed, over and over again.

The Bottom Line

Instead of accepting the negative aspects of education, we need to start actively listening to all stakeholders involved to effect change. Others need to start actively listening to all of us, too. Everyone needs to do better. All of us deserve it.

This Teacher Is Questioning Everything

What a school year! So many teachers have taken to the Internet to share their stories, both good and bad. I reviewed previous posts this morning. The theme is clear: We need to reimagine what education should be. My thoughts are not original, not by a long shot. However, it’s important to contribute to the conversation. Here are a few questions I have right now.

Why Do We Still Have Standardized Tests?

Again, this isn’t an original observation. I add my voice to the cacophony of voices questioning the need for these tests that don’t prove anything. Education advocates are asking leadership in Pennsylvania, for example, to cancel the Keystone and PSSA exams this year for a multitude of reasons. Students have struggled mightily to engage this year, so why not take the time we would normally spend prepping to learn something?

That statement alone speaks volumes.

The counter argument is departments of education need to know how schools are doing. We all know how schools are doing, even if we don’t want to admit it. We all know that student motivation is, in general, low, as well as participation and engagement. We all know many more students are in crisis, and mental health emergencies have increased. We all know that teachers are leaving the profession in higher numbers.

Folks, we all know what’s happening. Rather than proceed as if everything was normal this year, why not brainstorm ways to evaluate schools qualitatively, instead of quantitatively? Yes, that would be hard. However, I think the information gleaned from a comprehensive qualitative analysis would reveal much more than scores on a test.

What Do Grades Really Mean?

One of the questions I consider when planning is, “Why do they need to learn this?” Another question I ask is, “How do I assess learning?” Following on that is another important question: “How does a grade on this activity affect a student’s confidence to master the skills embedded in the activity?”

So, why have grades at all? What do grades mean? How are they used for motivation and how are they used as a judgment about a student’s performance and capabilities? How do students feel after receiving a poor grade when they tried so hard? What are we saying about mistakes as opportunities to improve? Are we denying students the chance to improve and eventually score well by giving them grades along the way? Are averaged grades a reminder that at one point the student failed to perform perfectly?

I use formative assessment and replacing scores with the highest score to mitigate these problems. Formative assessment does not normally result in a grade, so in my classes, formative assessment is two percent of the total grade and I allow students to make corrections to boost even that score. Summative assessments are project-based, so there is plenty of time to complete the activity well and to check on progress. Quizzes are not one class period activities, either, for the most part. I want the kids to think, make connections, and learn something in the process.

It’s the learning that matters, not the score. How can we change the process of grading to better support student learning?

Does Text-Dependent Analysis Work?

Not only text-dependent analysis, but anything that could be construed as a shortcut needs to be questioned. If you are teaching in a different content area, perhaps you know of equivalent techniques that have stormed through the curriculum, the “next big thing” in education. But does that technique really work? (I mean, seriously, the way my son was taught math still baffles me.)

For example, teaching students to examine a text without any background information, to interrogate it and pull it apart, is something I used to believe in. I thought it was an equitable approach that encouraged inclusion for students from various backgrounds. On some levels, that is true! It’s a way for students to approach a text dissimilar to what they have seen before and still experience success with it.

However, it’s a shortcut. In my opinion, it’s used instead of actually providing an array of texts to students to struggle with, so they can use that background knowledge to tackle more complicated texts in the future. We have run out of time to teach such an array. How did that happen? Refer to my comment above about standardized tests. Before those tests dominated the fourth quarter, there was time.

When I was a kid, for example, we read several novels and plays a year. We kids did not necessarily like or appreciate the teacher’s selections and resorted to CliffsNotes (yes) instead of reading the book when it was a “snooze,” but the opportunity was there. Nowadays, it is unlikely students will have that chance, nor that ambition.

What I hear from students is they hate reading. They don’t see the point to it; they aren’t learning anything from it. They have “learned” so many reading strategies that inhibit their natural love of vicarious adventure. Many are also tired of being told that what they think about a book is “wrong.” Why read it if their interpretation of it is wrong anyway?

Where did we go wrong? I refer you back to my opinion about grades and mistakes being opportunities instead of evidence of failure. Just let the kids read. Teach them how to do TDA, but not for a damn test, but to open their minds to a wide, diverse, and wonderful world of words.

What Are We Doing?

We have the chance, right now, to figure out how to fix what is broken with our system. Will we take that chance? I don’t know, but if this pandemic has proven anything, it’s proven that we need to start questioning everything we thought was right about education.

Speaking Your Truth

I teach a creative writing class by the seat of my pants. Why? Because each student who experiences the class is a unique individual. Creative writing is a personal endeavor; pre-established expectations should not hamper creative writers. Therefore, while the skeleton of the course is there, each item in that “curriculum” – such as it is – has the goal of helping students understand themselves better and find their voice.

To find their voice, creative writers explore their truth. What is it about the human condition they know, deep down, in the bones of their experience? What themes do they turn to, perhaps without knowing it? I don’t think my students are expecting such freedom or challenge when they start the class. It’s jarring to consider one’s metacognitive processes and to examine what they know to be true, especially if they have never been asked to do that before.

The activities of this elective class can only help them become better writers and readers, ultimately leading to self-actualization and increased self-confidence. As I have written many times before, we study literature to better understand the human condition and our place in society. Well, we write to learn the same things.

The First Magazine Post

That brings me to a project we worked on this past week. While our literary and arts magazine had been in print for years, due to COVID-19, I moved it to a WordPress instance last year. Every creative writing student is invited to contribute to the magazine. This week, I asked the students write their first post for the magazine.

The name of the assignment is “Speaking Your Truth.” We explored the concept of theme – a message or statement about the human condition. Usually we are asked, as readers, to find the theme of a work, so I decided to ask the students to determine what theme they would like to express in their post. What is the important message they want to send to their readers at this point in their lives? What do they know to be true about how humans interact, how they live, human nature, and society?

After creating a theme statement, the students created a discussion post on the LMS (learning management system) in which they expressed their theme statement and explained why they know this to be true. The discussion was phenomenal. As I had hoped, granting students freedom and challenging them to think about their values and experiences opened the flood gates of creativity.

The next step was to learn how to use WordPress to create a post. As they are all contributors, that part was easy. Write, click on “Publish,” and then click on “Send for Review.” I will format the post for them. For example, if they want to add media, I can upload their media and insert it for them. If they write a poem, I can ensure the text is in a verse block.

Students were allowed to create any type of text they wanted: poem, short story, comic strip (yes), graphic story (a mini version of the graphic novel), micro-fiction, essay, etc. I believe that thrilled most of the students and frightened some of them.

For example, one of the students asked the age-old chestnut: “How long does this have to be?” in an email. Since no one else knew that this student asked that question, I felt free to comment without embarrassing anyone: “Please do not ask me how long this has to be. It needs to be as long as you need to speak your truth. If that’s one page, cool. If that’s twenty, cool.”

This weekend, I am going to review what has been posted. I am sure that there is some great writing waiting to be read. I can’t wait to learn more about these wonderful individuals and what they know to be true.